by Neal Peirce
What can American communities really do to raise school achievement scores, improve college graduation rates and increase their prospects for a competitive niche in the 21st-century global economy?
Educational theories and approaches abound. From teachers to administrators to foundations and corporate leaders, everyone claims to have a "right" approach, from early childhood programs to wellness programs, more computerized learning to certified teachers in all classrooms.
But one thing is often missing - teamwork, the process of bringing all the skills of a city and region to bear on promoting what clear evidence shows truly succeeds, by objective measurements, to produce better academic results.
The good news is that the United States still has its inspired crusaders for change. One most certainly is Nancy L. Zimpher, former president of the University of Cincinnati, where, in 2006, she co-founded "Strive" - America's first network to push for in-depth regional education alliances, championing an exciting, if highly challenging, cause: "Every Child, Every Step of the Way, from Cradle to Career."
That pioneer Strive effort - bringing higher education together with businesses and nonprofits to work with schools, not just in Greater Cincinnati but also in Kentucky communities across the Ohio River - has resulted in marked improvement in regional school grade scores plus college enrollment numbers.
But now Zimpher is chancellor of the massive State University of New York system and has been busy starting Strive alliances, first in the Albany capital region and now in a growing range of communities spread from Buffalo to Brooklyn. Other startups aided by the Strive Network (a subsidiary of KnowledgeWorks, an operating foundation and its core funder) range from Bridging Richmond (Va.) to the All Kids Alliance (Houston) to Vision 2015 (Delaware) to All Hands Raised (Portland, Ore.). Strive's goal is to create at least 25 cradle to career communities by 2015.
It's tough to argue about the need. An alarming number of high school students - about 1 million nationally - drop out of school before graduation. More than 40 percent of New York state's community college students are so poorly prepared that they need first-year remedial help - a not unusual pattern. Across the nation, high proportions of college students fail to complete their studies and win degrees. Each dropout or failure not only spells limited life prospects for the student, but a less economically vibrant region where they live.
The Strive idea is that once multiple players in a region come together, sharing information and insights, they can pull back and see how the education system functions as a whole - and then set targets ranging from early childhood education to college graduation.
It's not an easy formula. It means active, ongoing engagement by mayors, city and county governments, foundations, businesses, social service agencies and others - plus teachers, administrators, university faculty. It's a call for no-excuses collaboration. It means groups performing the tough act of putting their personal educational theories to the side.
Strive's Road Map Project, encompassing seven disadvantaged school districts just south of Seattle, has just the kind of population that metro area "establishments" often ignore - 60 percent students of color, 54 percent from low-income, often immigrant families. But its signatories, pledged to radical improvement, range all the way from the vice provost of the University of Washington to the president of the Seattle Foundation, a director of youth and family services to the chancellor of Seattle Community Colleges and representatives of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Road Map goals start as early as improved prenatal care for mothers and then formal early learning programs so children are prepared for kindergartens. Then there are sets of markers such as an improvement of 6th-grade reading proficiency from 61 percent to 80 percent by 2020. And a goal to double the number of college diploma or career credential students the same year.
One has to think similar targets, backed up by commitments of long-term support by city establishments, by principals and classroom teachers and social service groups across the nation, could yield exciting results over time.
This is really a significant way, Zimpher argues, to address America's educational challenges - "setting aside traditional territorial finger-pointing, compiling the data, identifying what works, and as a community, making the right investments." She likens the process to "radical common sense."
For SUNY, Zimpher contends, it's a "civic duty" to step beyond its formal university role and make a broader impact to benefit an entire state.
One wonders: Checking back in 10 years, how many of the Strive-backed cradle-to-career goals will have been achieved? Surely not 100 percent. But there's no doubt: the greater the success, the stronger American society.
Right now, regions not signed on to Strive - or emulating its efforts under some other banner - need to ponder: How can we expect to compete in this century?Neal Peirce's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
© 2012, The Washington Post Writers Group
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of the National League of Cities or Nation's Cities Weekly.